Mozart’s Life, Love, and Letters – and his music – provide much to enjoy.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart – ‘From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: Mozart’s Life, Love, and Letters’: Lara Melda (piano), Christian Immler (baritone), Ben Griffiths (double bass), Samuel West (narrator), Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor). HallOne, Kings Place,London. 15.9.2011 (MB)

Don Giovanni, KV 537: Overture
Die Zauberflöte, KV 620: ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’
Concert Aria: ‘Per questo bella mano,’ KV 612
Concert Aria: ‘Ich möchte wohl der Kaiser sein’, KV 539
Divertimento for two horns and strings, KV 522, ‘Ein musikalischer Spaß’
Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466
Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’


The best came both interspersed and last. First the interspersed: Samuel West’s delightful readings from Mozart’s correspondence. It may seem an obvious thing to say but what an enormous difference it makes to hear Mozart’s letters read by so fine an actor! The characterisation brought, without exaggeration, to Mozart’s words proved something of a master-class. Letters to Constanze, Leopold, and Mozart’s cousin, ‘Bäsle’ (Maria Anna Thekla, ‘his ‘first love’), gave a taste of the white heat of compositional inspiration and its accompanying mood swings. Not that one would ever think Mozart anything other than lovable: exasperating, perhaps, but as impossible to take against as his music. Puppy-like enthusiasm and melancholy were conveyed in equally moving manner by West.

The concluding Haffner Symphony proved the highlight of the musical performances. Its first movement sounded – it is difficult to imagine it otherwise – brilliant, extrovert, taken and maintained by Nicholas Collon at a well-judged tempo. Aside from a few passages in the development section, the strings, violins especially, were permitted enough vibrato, which had not always been the case earlier on. The Andante was not rushed but kept moving, pulsating with life, whilst the minuet, taken at a quickish three-in-a-bar sounded winningly earthy without crudity, its trio an elegant interlude. Finally, the closing Presto sparkled with Haydnesque brilliance, the players of the Aurora Orchestra revelling in the virtuosity required. Their reading under Collon was impeccably precise, bar one minor, brief lapse of ensemble, and more importantly still, it exuded a real sense of the music’s direction and purpose, with only the most occasional fussiness imposed upon it.

There had been much to enjoy during the first half too. The opening of the Don Giovanni Overture was taken, as is now the fashion, at an unmistakeably alla breve tempo, yet benefited from a full orchestral sound. (Though the orchestra is on the small side, so is the hall, so it worked.) The Allegro section was urgent, in Collon’s hands perhaps more aggressive than high-spirited, but there is arguably warrant for such an approach. Christian Immler joined the orchestra for two concert arias and ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’. Throughout, Immler’s diction was excellent: one could discern not only every word, but also a great deal of meaning behind every word. There was a certain dryness, however, to his vocal delivery, especially in the Magic Flute aria, though the glockenspiel (Simon Lane) enchanted. ‘Per questo bella mano’ benefited greatly from the obbligato double bass playing of Ben Griffiths: a rare chance to hear such virtuosity and musicality from the instrument. It almost sounded seductive! There was humour in the performance but, quite rightly, no silliness: if the combination of bass and double bass is a joke on Mozart’s part, it is better played straight. A rare opportunity to hear the Entführung-style music of ‘Ich möchte wohl der Kaiser sein’ was well taken in a spirited rendition: Immler sometimes acquired greater bloom to his voice, though there remained dry passages. To have such fine diction was a boon in an aria whose interest often lies as much in projection of the words, given its strophic form. To close the first half, we heard A Musical Joke, Mozart’s wicked parody of third-rate composition (and copying). It was played straight, as it must be, so that the humour was Mozart’s alone. Oh, the cultivated banality, the brilliance of the non sequiturs and mistranspositions! Thomas Gould played a superlative role as leader, especially in his slow movement solo passagework. I do not wish to hear this piece often, but when it is performed, may it be in a performance of this quality.

It was a pity, then, that the D minor Piano Concerto – perhaps a piece too many for the programme? – received a lesser performance, more on account of the soloist, Lara Melda, than the orchestra, though there one could not overlook, especially in the first movement, thinness to the string tone (there were only five first violins, boosted to six for the Haffner). At best, the piano part was efficiently despatched, nothing more: there was not the slightest evidence of Melda engaging either with the orchestra or indeed with the meaning of Mozart’s music. Looking ‘soulful’ and moving one’s head around during tutti passages is no substitute for the chamber-music interplay Mozart demands. Even the cadenza (Beethoven’s) was plodding. If there had earlier been a certain orchestral harshness to the opening movement, greater tenderness was permitted in the Romanze: woodwind sounded gorgeous, but the strings sounded warmer too. The piano part remained disconnected, almost as if the pianist were playing along to a Music Minus One recording, the central section heavy rather than stormy. In the finale, the Aurora players truly captured the spirit of Mozart’s D minor dæmon (reminding one of the Don Giovanni Overture, in a programme which, taken as a whole, took a tonal path that echoed its opening piece). I shall draw a veil over the bizarre cadenza. Melda, it seems, won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 2010. On the evidence of the present performance, she would benefit from further study before throwing herself further into the limelight.

Mark Berry